In the third of a second (and very popular) series we interview some of the most talented up-and-coming Sommeliers in Ontario. A few years back I was flicking through the pages of a locally published periodical and noticed that when it came to Sommeliers it was the same names that seemed to pop up over and over again. I was also becoming gradually cognisant of the fact that we more established wine folks were well and truly “losing our edge” to these young blood Sommeliers.
Being well aware of the depth of new talent that was out there I finally decided to get together with a couple of fellow Toronto Sommelier “Old Guard” (Anton Potvin and Peter Boyd) to assemble a line of questioning that would give us an entertaining insight into the minds of these rising stars.
Last year we put Pizza Libretto/Enoteca Sociale Sommelier Lesa LaPointe through the wringer in one of our most popular articles thus far. We followed this with an interview with the Owner/Wine Geek of Parkdale’s Café Taste, Mr. Jeremy Day, then with Zinta Steprans, who at that point was Sommelier at Toronto restaurants L’Unita and Malena but is now at Soho House, Carolyn Balogh of Abcon International Wines, Christopher Sealy of Midfield fame, and then a debacle of an interview (my fault) with the mercurial Ms. Sheila Flaherty, ex of Mercatto and Pearl-Morisette.
For this issue we sit down with Café Boulud‘s Jordan Alessi:
Good Food Revolution: So Jordan, what are you up to?
Jordan Alessi: So, for the past five months Drew Walker and I have been curating the wine program at the brand New Four Seasons, Cafe Boulud and D/bar, which has been a pretty exciting.
GFR: Describe what you do at Café Boulud?
JA: You will generally find me on the floor most days running around talking about the wines on our list. As well, I assist the Wine Director Drew Walker with the upkeep of the list for Cafe and D/bar. It is pretty amazing that Drew shares that responsibility with me, as it could easily just be him making the decisions and me executing them. However this is not the case at all. We both try to divide our time equally, between the grunt work and being on the floor together. That is the best part of the job, no? I know it is for me.
GFR: And how would you explain the wine program there?
JA: If I had to sum it up in one word, I think I would say “accessible”. We cover the world and in the least pretentious way possible. I think we have hit all the classic examples of great wine regions and producers, but also stayed on point in respect to my personality, Drew’s personality, and most important Chef Bouluds personalty. You will find little bits of each of us on the list, which I think is pretty cool.
GFR: Does Msr. Boulud have any influence upon your management of the lists? I know that he enjoys his wine.
JA: He loves wine, and knows crazy amounts about it! I geek out when he talks about that stuff with us, but he is generally really great about letting us make those decisions. I think in part that is why he is where he is where he is. He gives his people the room to make their own decisions, however he certainly lest you know when he does not approve! Hahaha
GFR: How aware of wine were you whilst growing up? Were you around wine from an early age?
JA: I guess I was aware… to a certain extent. My parents always had wine around at home. My father is Italian, so there was wine at my grandparents house ( stuff that would blind you) but it was wine. It was my aunt and uncle in New Zealand that really ruined me. I spent eight months there initially and my Uncle was the one who exposed me to some really great bottles of wine. After that first trip is when I became a little more particular about what I drank.
GFR: When will you be introducing your little terror to the wonderful world of wine?
JA: Once in a while our little boy smells my wine glass and gives his nod of approval. I think he sees me doing it! My wife is educated in wine as well, although she does not work in the industry, so I think it is already happening organically which is possibly the best thing for him. Our plan for him is always to put stuff away for when he turns 19, but sometimes we just get a little bit excited about great wine being in the house… and it gets consumed.
GFR: When did you first decide that you would like a career in wine?
JA: That was after my first trip to New Zealand. I had just finished high school and I did not want to go straight to university so I took off. My Aunt and Uncle hosted me for eight months and he would open really great wines at dinner, from all over the world. He would always ask me my thoughts on the wines and he noticed that I had a certain knack for describing wine. He really pushed me hard to pursue wine and in hindsight I am extremely glad that he did.
GFR: The Sommelier world is notoriously full pretentious arses… has being a “nice guy” been a help or a hindrance to you?
JA: I feel like the people who are in our field that take the pretentious route always end up losing. They lose the customer on the floor for making them feel insignificant. They lose with their peers because people stop caring about their opinions. In my mind it’s never alright to make anybody feel bad ever, especially about wine. I notice sometimes at tables when I use the ‘Sommelier’ word people look scared and I don’t feel as if that should not be the case at all. I like being the ‘nice guy’ as I think people respond really well to that in a restaurant situation. I remember what it was like to be in a room with people that knew a hell of a lot more than I did, and I was scared. I still am that guy, but it was those people who saw my feart and then took the time to nicely explain things and make me feel welcome that always meant so much to me. And I guess that these are the people I model myself and my career after.
GFR: Which wine regions have you had the opportunity to visit?
JA: Well, I have been all over New Zealand which was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Last April I was lucky enough to travel to Italy where I toured Friuli and Veneto. It was pretty amazing, especially the Friuli part of the trip. I really love those wines, so to be there was pretty amazing.
GFR: Have you ever thought about making your own wine?
JA: I think about it everyday! When I went back to study wine in New Zealand, I worked in a few wineries. The greatest thing about that experience was working vintage. I loved being out in the vineyard and working in the winery. However, I am not sure that I am ready to leave the city yet. I do want my son to be exposed to that lifestyle at some point though.
GFR: I know that you spent quite some time working in the wine world in New Zealand… what do you feel are the best wines coming out of there right now?
JA: The Syrah and Bordeaux varities that come from Hawke’s Bay continue to impress me. It is a great place for all wine. I also love some of the aromatic whites that come out of NZ, which are not typically wines I drink a lot of at home, but when I was there I was surprised some of the Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtz was not getting more attention.
GFR: At Café Boulud do you have to work as a Manager as well as a Sommelier?
JA: We have a great team of Managers at Cafe Boulud. Drew and I support them, but really the only thing we “manage” is wine service and the program. Drew, being the Wine Director designed very clear guidelines of how he wanted our wine service to go, and I am there to help reinforce them.
GFR: Do you prefer managing bottles or people?
JA: Bottles for sure!!. There are so many people involved with our operation, and to keep track of everybody would make my head spin! I have the best job in the restaurant for sure. Even I get to be a pain and then Drew has the unfortunate job of keeping me in check haha, i can’t imagine managing a staff of 60 + people for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
GFR: What have been your career highs and lows?
JA: I have been very lucky so far in my career. I have had some people who I consider to be great mentors to me and I think those experiences were huge. Getting my current job is a pretty big high. I sat next to Drew at a Stratus tasting and did not even know who he was. We were both enjoying the wines so much that we forgot to spit them out. We had a great conversation, went our separate ways, and suddenly two months later, I got a random call from him asking if I would be interested in working with him. How could I say no? I think we make a great team.
I think my lows came with being young in a industry that was much more mature then I was. I took it very personally. I wanted things to happen for me so fast, and as a result I made some bad decisions. I don’t regret anything I have done, but looking back I certainly would have gone about it in a different way.
GFR: You are stranded on a desert island with one companion until rescue arrives… would you choose James Suckling, Jancis Robinson, or the ghost of Didier Dagueneau?
JA: Dagueneau for sure! Think of the survival skills you would learn! That hair and beard! You know he is going to build an awesome shelter, find food for you, and find some way to make booze, plus the conversation would be amazing minus the language barrier. You have to think of the big picture, I could sit back and relax while Dagueneau took care of business!
GFR: Sommeliers famously have Sundays off… What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?… or perhaps you have Mondays off?
JA: Sunday is my day. It definitely involves sleeping in! I work late and when you have a two year old, the window for a good night’s rest is slim. Generally from the moment I wake up, I am thinking about my stomach. I like to spend my days off eating. Just spending time with family and friends is a great day off for me.
GFR: Where are your favourite places to dine in Toronto?
JA: I am a simple guy when it comes to food, so when it is left to me, getting a steak and a bottle of wine at Barberians would be at the top of my list for dinner. I think a pint of beer and curry on the patio at Allen’s on the Danforth is my favourite lunch. Brunch with caesars at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen is always a good way to start a week.
GFR: Do you cook yourself? What’s your favourite dish to cook these days?
JA: My wife is the cook in our house, but I make a killer pasta with fresh herbs, grilled radicchio, prosciutto, avocado, tomatoes, and arugala. It’s my go to.
GFR: And have you had any cooking disasters?
JA: Errrrrr… I just can’t make eggs! My wife accuses me of lying but I can’t fry an egg! It is shameful, I always burn the bottom. Time and time again I think cooking eggs on a high heat is the way to go. It’s really sad.
GFR: How do you feel about Canadian wines?
JA: I love Canadian wine, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t generally buy a lot of Canadian wine to drink at home. We have (I think) a great representation of the best Canadian stuff on our list and I am really proud of that.
GFR: Do you have any thoughts on the Natalie McLean controversy?
JA: I learned the hard way in grade 8 that you should always always add a bibliography at the end of your report! Otherwise your teacher is going to be really mad! I don’t think she meant any harm in what was happening, but people saw it a different way.
GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a wine city?
JA: I feel like we are getting there. I do get frustrated with people’s taste. I feel like Toronto sometimes has a very linear palate. People like to drink the same type of wines. I want for people to have a little bit more trust and break out of their comfort zone, but in the same respect, who I am I to tell people what they should enjoy? I think it is also comes down to what is available to us as consumers. London, England is a great example, and you can find wines from everywhere and from a ton of different vintages at good prices. It is hard for people to discover wines when the availability is as limited as it is here. I think it is our job as Sommeliers to be better teachers, and we have some really great Sommeliers in this city doing just that.
GFR: What would you be doing if you were not a Sommelier?
JA: I always thought I would make a great publicist, I don’t know why but that is my answer!
GFR: What does your Mother wish you were doing?… I know that mine probably wishes I was a Doctor…
JA: She loves what I do!! The only thing my mother wishes for is a Granddaughter! I have an older brother and there is my son. She hoped that I was going to be born a girl and that did not work out for her… she needs a little girl to spoil.
GFR: I know that you have many non-industry friends… how do they feel about what you do for a living?
JA: It is a mixed bag hahahaha! Some of my friends are really into it, and ask a ton of questions. I get calls from the LCBO from them asking what to buy and I do my best to help. Some just don’t understand. My friend Thomas loves to yell at me about how any wine over $20 is a waste of money. He is really funny about it though, so it is entertaining.
GFR: What are your thoughts on blind tasting?
JA: It is a bit of a double edged sword. I really like to blind taste, because I think it is a great learning resource for me. However I am crap at it, and I second guess myself as to why I am in the position I am in all the time!
GFR: What’s your current favourite wine region?
JA: For white wine right now has to be Savennières I just like the diversity of those wines, and for red it has to be Rioja. Rioja I find is great value for the quality of wine your getting, and it is also such a crowd pleaser with people who don’t know a great deal about wine. It is the perfect gateway wine.
GFR: When it comes to wine is there anything that you feel is overrated?
JA: Big wines! Toronto loves them. I am going to stop there. Actually I should say there are big wines and then there are BIG wines and I just don’t understand how those are all certain people want to drink.
GFR: Okay… three pairings with me on the spot?… but with… hmmmmm… personalities!
1: An artsy Queen West bearded lady with tattoos
JA: I don’t mean to be boring but, I think this calls for a nice Kentucky Honey Bourbon. It is just fitting for the scenario, no?
2. A red-nosed Scotsman who has obviously had a few pops
JA: This calls for a nice cold Löwenbrau!! I don’t know why that would have just popped into my head? Jamie would you have any ideas?
3. William Shatner
Bohemian-Style absinth. Have you ever seen his talk show Raw Nerve? Think about how interesting the conversation would be after a few glasses of this stuff with old Will!
GFR: Now… which wines would you pair with these pieces of music?
JA: I am sure this is not the first time you have heard this, but this is the one part of the interview I was dreading.
1. Mogwai – Take Me Somewhere Nice
JA: Josko Gravner Ribolla Gialla Anfora This song comes from one of my favourite bands so it just makes sense to pair it with one of my favourite wines. The song like the wine starts off kinda muted, but as it goes on there is a lot of power and depth there.
2. Half Man Half Biscuit – Joy Division Oven Gloves
JA: Initially I wanted to go with some Mead from Rosewood just because of Nigel Blackwell’s accent that poked through. It just made me think of Mead for some reason. However a second listen my thought was, it was only fitting that I go with J.M Sohler Grand Cru Winzenberg Pinot Gris. This song has a perception of sweetness, but that’s not the case at all. It is pretty serious.
3. Ladytron – Seventeen (The Droyds Remix)
JA: Makes me think of 20-27 Vineyards ‘ 2007 Falls Vineyard Riesling’ that wine has crazy electric acidity! Kinda like the hook of this song.
GFR: Do you often drink beers or spirits?
JA: There is always beer in my fridge. I also often have a beer at the end of the night with Drew, it is when we get the majority of our work done. I am not and have never really been a spirits guy at all. I really do like to drink beer though.
GFR: What is your least favourite part of your job as Sommelier? For me it was doing inventory…
JA: Inventory has to be up there, although Drew does most of it at Café Boulud.. I told you I was a pain in the ass to work with! Hauling cases of wine around really is not my job of choice either. Especially on a huge delivery day and you have 30 cases of wine to put away.
GFR: Ha… I remember that well.
What is your weapon of choice when it comes to a corkscrew?
JA: I was given a beautiful Laguiole corkscrew by a friend and it just snapped on me. So it has been replaced by an amazing and durable Bouchard Père et Fils corkscrew courtesy of Jason Woodman of Woodman Agencies. Thank You Jason! That or I nick them from the floor staff…
GFR: What are your thoughts on Cask wines in restaurants for by-the-glass programs?
JA: I think they have their place as do all wines. I have not tried too many. I think it was at Gusto 101 that I tried some and they were really nice wines.
GFR: Sommeliers often have quite the increased tolerance for wine/booze. What is your limit?
JA: I can drink wine and champagne all day. Sun up to sun down, but the moment you give me a glass of gin or three beers, I am asleep three hours later.
GFR: Have you ever been “cut off”?
JA: Only once and It was my mother who cut me off. Generally I slip out before, I get all ‘Crazy Uncle’. Plus being hungover in the morning with a child is not the best day of anybody’s life.
GFR: How many wines do you taste in a week?
JA: Too many to count, if you count all the wine we open on the floor. We insure that every bottle is checked for “health”. We try and meet with agents to taste stuff weekly, so it actually is anywhere between 20-30 wines off the floor.
GFR: Do you spit or swallow?
JA: Depends on the wine!!…. and I can’t believe I had to answer that question.
GFR: What’s your “house” wine at home?
JA: The LCBO did a release of 2001 La Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva Especial and we bought a bunch. We have been drinking that. It is not normal for us to drink wine at that price as a ‘house wine’ but the wine is so delicious, I can’t stop drinking it. Sadly I have two bottles left, maybe none by the time this gets published!
GFR: Do you keep a cellar at home?
JA: Long answer is… “We would love to keep a cellar but we just don’t have the space at home right now, especially with all of our son’s stuff”
Short answer is…. We like to drink wine!
GFR: What is your perfect glass (or bottle) of wine at the end of a crazy night at the restaurant?
JA: I think that is all dependent on the type of night you have had. Those are where those bigger high alcohol wines can be of some great benefit to you…
GFR: And now the cheesy question Jordan… If you were a grape varietal what would you be?
JA: I think I would be Ribolla Gialla because…
…I am typically a deep colored, light bodied with high acidity and some floral notes!. I can produce a more New World style with some oak aging… As the wine ages, like me, it can develop some nutty flavors.
*Please make sure you let the readers know that I used wikipedia as the source of my information on Ribolla Gialla.*
Thanks For a Great Time Jamie!!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution.
Peter Boyd has been a part of Toronto’s wine scene for over two decades. He has taught the Diploma level for the International Sommeliers Guild, and has been the sommelier at Scaramouche Restaurant since 1993. He also writes about wine, food and pop culture and raises show molerats for fun and profit. He’s also one of the most solid guys in the business. He just recently took over the selection and purchasing of wine for the Pizza Libretto group whilst the wonderful Lisa LaPointe is on maternity leave. And now Skin and Bones! Trust this man. Seriously… he knows his shit and it TAKING OVER THIS CITY!
A well-known and much respected figure on the Toronto food and wine scene for almost twenty years, Potvin has worked in many of the city’s very best establishments including Biffs, Canoe, and Eau. In 2004 Potvin opened his incarnation of the Niagara Street Café, a restaurant that has gone from strength to strength year after year, with universal critical acclaim. Anton spends much of his time traveling and tasting wine and has been ranked highly in consecutive years of the International Wine Challenge. And he looks a bit like the Mad Monk himself… Ra, Ra, Rasputin. Ah, those crazy Russians. Anton is currently a gentleman of leisure.